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What is vitrectomy?

A vitrectomy is a type of eye surgery to treat certain problems with the retina and vitreous. During the surgery, your surgeon removes the vitreous and replaces it with another solution. The vitreous is a gel-like substance that fills the back part of your eye. 

The retina is a layer of nerve cells that lines the inner back of your eye. These cells use light to send visual information to your brain. Normally, the vitreous is clear. This lets light pass through your eye and reach your retina.

Certain problems can cause blood and debris to block this light. Scar tissue in your vitreous can also displace or tear your retina. This can affect your vision. Surgeons sometimes do vitrectomy for a detached retina. Removing the vitreous gives better access to your retina. It also reduces the tension on your retina.

During vitrectomy, your surgeon (an eye doctor called an ophthalmologist) uses small tools to cut the vitreous and suction it out. Then your eye doctor does any other needed repairs, such as fixing a hole in your retina. They may place sterile saline, a gas bubble, or a clear liquid called silicone oil into your eye. This helps the retina stay in its correct position.

Why might I need a vitrectomy?

You might need a vitrectomy if you have one of these eye problems:

  • Diabetic retinopathy

  • Retinal detachment

  • Vitreous hemorrhage

  • Infection inside your eye

  • Severe eye injury

  • A hole in the central part of your retina (macula)

  • A wrinkle in the central part of your retina

  • Certain problems after cataract surgery

All of these health problems can cause vision loss. If not treated, some of them can even result in blindness. In some cases, vitrectomy can restore lost vision. You might need a vitrectomy done in an emergency, such as an eye injury. In other cases, your eye doctor might schedule your vitrectomy in advance.

But a vitrectomy may not be your only option if you have one of these health problems. If you have diabetic retinopathy, for example, your eye doctor might advise a procedure called laser photocoagulation instead.

If you have a detached retina, you might be able to have laser treatment, a procedure called pneumatic retinopexy, or an operation called scleral buckling. But you may be more likely to need a vitrectomy if you have a complex retinal detachment. Or if your eye condition has caused bleeding into your vitreous. Ask your eye doctor about the benefits and risks of all of your treatment options.

What are the risks of vitrectomy?

Most people do well with vitrectomy. But complications do sometimes happen. Your risks may depend on your age, your health conditions, and the specifics of your eye problem. Some risks of the procedure include:

  • Infection

  • Excess bleeding

  • High pressure in the eye

  • New retinal detachment caused by the surgery

  • Lens damage

  • Increased rate of cataract formation

  • Problems with eye movement after surgery

  • Change in refractive error

There is also a risk that the surgery will not successfully fix your original problem. If this is the case, you might need a repeat surgery.

How do I get ready for a vitrectomy?

Ask your eye doctor what you need to do to get ready for vitrectomy surgery. Ask if you need to stop taking any medicines before the procedure. Follow any directions you are given for not eating or drinking before your surgery.

Your eye doctor may want to use special tools to shine a light in your eye and examine your retina. You will need to have your eyes dilated for your eye exam. You also might have an ultrasound of your eye, which helps your eye doctor view the retina.

What happens during a vitrectomy?

Talk with your eye doctor about what to expect during your surgery. The details of the surgery may differ a bit. A doctor specially trained in eye surgery will do your surgery. In general, you can expect the following:

  • You may be awake during the surgery. You will be given a medicine to help you relax. In this case, your eye doctor may use a shot (injection) to make sure you don’t feel anything.

  • In other cases, you may have general anesthesia to put you to sleep. If this is the case, you will sleep deeply during the surgery. You won’t remember it afterwards.

  • Your eye doctor will expose your eye.

  • Your eye doctor will make small cuts in the white part of your eye (sclera).

  • Your eye doctor will remove the vitreous and any scar tissue or foreign material.

  • Your eye doctor will do other repairs to your eye as needed. For example, they might use a laser to fix a tear in your retina. In some cases, your eye doctor may inject a gas bubble into your eye to help keep your retina in place.

  • Your eye doctor may replace the vitreous with some other sort of fluid, such as silicone oil or saline.

  • Your eye doctor may close your surgical cuts (incisions) with stitches. But stitches are often not needed.

  • An antibiotic ointment will be placed on your eye to help prevent infection.

  • Your eye will be covered with a patch.

What happens after a vitrectomy?

Ask your eye doctor about what you should expect after your surgery. In most cases, you will be able to go home the same day. Plan to have someone drive you home after the procedure.

Be sure to follow your eye doctor’s instructions about eye care. You may need to take eye drops with antibiotics to help prevent infection. Your eye may be a little sore after the procedure. But you should be able to take over-the-counter pain relievers. You may need to wear an eye patch for a day or so.

If you had a gas bubble placed in your eye during your vitrectomy, you will need to follow specific directions about positioning after the surgery. To avoid complications, you will also need to not do any air travel or travel to high altitudes until the bubble is gone. Ask your eye doctor when it will be safe for you to fly or travel to high altitudes again.

You will need close follow-up with your eye doctor to see if the procedure was effective. You may have a scheduled appointment the day after the procedure. Be sure to tell your eye doctor right away if you have decreasing vision or increasing pain or swelling around your eye. If silicone oil is injected into your eye during surgery, over time you may need another surgery to remove it from your eye.

Your vision may not be completely normal after your vitrectomy. This is even more likely if your condition caused lifelong (permanent) damage to your retina. Ask your eye doctor about how much improvement you can expect.

Next steps

Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:

  • The name of the test or procedure

  • The reason you are having the test or procedure

  • What results to expect and what they mean

  • The risks and benefits of the test or procedure

  • What the possible side effects or complications are

  • When and where you are to have the test or procedure

  • Who will do the test or procedure and what that person’s qualifications are

  • What would happen if you did not have the test or procedure

  • Any alternative tests or procedures to think about

  • When and how you will get the results

  • Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or problems

  • How much you will have to pay for the test or procedure

Online Medical Reviewer: Chris Haupert MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2021
© 2000-2023 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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